Democrats, Republicans and The Jewish Community

Now that Labor Day has come and gone, we have officially entered into the silly season of American politics. The truth, of course, is that nothing about it is silly; quite the opposite. But once the candidates are formally nominated and the campaign reaches its most intense stage, truth tends to take a leave of absence, hyperbole reigns, and promises are handed out like crisp one dollar bills.

For better or for worse- and I would certainly say that it is for better- we Jews exercise a disproportionate influence on presidential political campaigns. We are, demographically speaking, clustered in the “swing states” that are coveted by candidates because they are rich in Electoral College votes. Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and others are states which are considered “in play” for both candidates, not a sure “red” or “blue.” Because of the relatively large Jewish populations in those states and the fact that Jews tend to vote in high percentages, we are able to utilize our potential to “swing the vote” in those states to our advantage. At the very least, it guarantees us the attention of the candidates. But more substantively, it also places pressure on the candidates to give assurances to the Jewish community that our deepest-held concerns on matters like Israel’s security will be addressed.

No one group of American citizens pays closer attention to the promises of presidential electoral campaigns than our own Jewish community. I know that’s a large statement, given all the special interests that pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of their candidate of choice to procure the desired assurances. But we love to hear the candidates say the words we long to hear (which are, of course, written for them by their advisors on Jewish affairs).

Think of the number of presidential candidates of both parties who have, through the years, affirmed Jerusalem’s status as the eternal capital of Israel, and promise how they will be the ones to actually move America’s embassy there from its current home in Tel Aviv. Well, not quite. Actually, as of this writing, just to prove my point, the Democratic platform has dramatically restored the plank supporting Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel after having omitted it! It seems we complained loud enough. We shouldn’t have had to complain.

And, of course, the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is front and center at the moment. With Israel’s government growing increasingly more uneasy about Iran’s intentions, and fearful of losing any leverage that it has with the United States on this issue once the election is over, the candidates are finding themselves constrained to make statements and/or promises that are more strident and belligerent than they would naturally be inclined to make, and probably equally unlikely to be fulfilled.

It is a good thing- a very good thing- that the American Jewish community has such political leverage in this country. Any Jew who supports the abolition of the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote for president is, in my humble opinion, making a terrible mistake. The only reason why we have any clout in this country’s political process is because of the Electoral College.

But my sense is that the Jewish community tends to place altogether too much stock in the pronouncements that presidential candidates make in the heat of a campaign. By and large, once elected, most presidents tend to pull towards the middle. Governing too far to the left or right is almost impossible in the current political climate (I think President Obama has discovered this), and in the long run it’s probably better for the country to be a healthy distance from either extreme of the political spectrum.

But it is also true that until such time as a candidate is elected, he/she will be pulled in every which direction by competing special interests within the party he represents, Jewish community very much included, and will say almost anything to please them and get their votes. I, for one, place very little stock in any promise any candidate makes about Israel or other major policy areas. I hate to sound so cynical, but I think it’s just the nature of the beast during a presidential campaign.

It is fine and appropriate to have strong feelings about the basic political philosophy of the candidates, and to engage in earnest “due diligence” to ascertain voting records, previous policy decisions, and public pronouncements and the like that are likely to foreshadow policy inclinations in the futures. We certainly should. But when Governor Romney complains that that President Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” (hardly true) but he would be a better friend, or President Obama claims to “have Israel’s back” on Iran … I certainly hope it’s true, but it seems that there’s a large swath of the Jewish community that doubts it, the public signals are mixed, and the government of Israel itself has its doubts. I just chalk it up to swing state politics. The issues are much too important to allow ourselves to fall in or out of love because of hyperbolic campaign rhetoric. How many elections do we have to experience before we recognize when we are being pandered to?

We Jews have legitimate and serious interests in this election, not limited to Israel and Iran. There are fundamental philosophical differences between the parties about the size and role of government, and a host of other critical issues that we face even as our economy continues to struggle. Frankly, the country can’t afford a campaign based on twisted facts and hyperbolic pronouncements. Social policy, education, health care… these, too, are Jewish issues.

We have, indeed, entered the “silly season” of American politics, but this needs to be a serious time. Serious people are called upon to make a fateful choice, based on a thoughtful consideration of all the issues involved. We Jews need to stop swooning over pandering sound bytes and hear what is really being said. Our influence in this election — and the issues — demand no less.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.